Paula Poundstone has joked that “adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up because they’re looking for ideas.” It leads itself into the debate over what it means to be adult and what it means to be a child.
Is childhood about fragile, unaware innocence and adulthood about brooding, cynical evaluation? Is childhood about clueless obliviousness and adulthood about intelligent self-awareness? Or is childhood and adulthood a thinner separation? There must be a reason that Jesus famously said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:15-17).
I must admit that some of my favorite memories are when I threw off the expectations others had for me, and ignored social constructs, and played like a proud idiot with my kids. We go on walks regularly – and each trip is an adventure. Sticks are swords and wands; mushrooms are alien life forms. Hills are for conquering – and rolling down, grass stains be darned! But they’re also for snow sledding and snowball battling, even if you’re the only adult taking part.
Honestly, I don’t know how well I’m growing up.
But when I read more about Jesus, it sounds to me like Jesus never said: grow up! [Sure, this flies in the face of I Corinthians 13:11, where Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” But this is not the first time Jesus and Paul didn’t say it exactly the same way…] But we have such a fascination with growing up. We ask kids all of the time.
I recently read that a teacher asked her class what each wanted to become when they grew up. A chorus of responses came from all over the room.
“A football player,” said Jim.
“A doctor,” said Alfred.
“An astronaut,” said Suzy.
“The president,” said little Al. (Everyone laughed).
“A fireman,” said Fred.
“A teacher,” said Lisa.
“A race car driver.” said Mario.
Everyone that is, except Tommy.
The teacher noticed he was sitting there quiet and still. So she said to him, “Tommy, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Possible.” Tommy replied.
“Possible?” asked the teacher.
“Yes,” Tommy said. “My mom is always telling me I’m impossible. So when I get to be big, I want to be possible.”
Ah, yes, to “grow up,” get big, eat off of the adult menu.
So many of us, as adults hearing this, would tell kids not to hurry and grow up. We would tell them to hold onto innocence, and enthusiasm, and passion. We would tell them nostalgically that we once played in the dirt, stayed out after dark, and looked at the stars. But now we know better, right? We pay the bills, scrub off the germs, and worry about safety. We have grown up.
And then there’s Jesus’ injunction: “For the kingdom of God belongs children…. Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
The world says grow up, and Jesus says, stay childlike?
Maybe there’s a difference between growing up and being mature.
Maybe growing up involves worrying about bills, finding more ways to stay busy, struggling with the way things are, and wrestling with the problems we see in the world.
Maybe being childlike in terms that Jesus meant means maturely handling your responsibilities, balancing work and play, praying optimistically about how the world should be, and seeing solutions and opportunities in the world.
Maybe, Jesus was saying that “size matters not” but that attitude does.
Maybe, Jesus was saying that while life will beat the joy, peace, and hope out of us, childlike Christians are constantly re-inusing themselves with the attributes that mirror the heart of God.
Maybe Jesus was saying that would be full of wonder, and grace, and joy – meeting friends who are new (not strangers), seeing mistakes and failures as a time for new opportunities, and facing each day as a wonderful adventure.
Maybe Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God was full of adventures to be had, journeys to be taken, and companions to befriend.
Maybe Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God was an open field not a closed circle.
Maybe Jesus was saying that what we “get” from the kingdom of God, or understand about it, requires a childlike approach. Maybe some of that responsibility for the kingdom of God is on us.
Hear the response of Jesus to children again: Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.
We have to be childlike if we want to enter.
But we also have to make sure that everything is done within our power to ‘not hinder’ children from it. While I hope that you all will embrace your inner kid by checking out these fun balloons and engaging in our ‘game day’ after church, I hope that we will take up the responsibilities that the ‘other’ part of this verse lays out.
I hope you will take up the responsibility of raising our children – all of them – with the knowledge and love of God.
Proverbs 22:6 states “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. Are we raising our children the way that they should be raised? Are we teaching them about Jesus at church and at home? Are we surrounding them with the people who will continue to nurture and care for them? Are we creating a culture where they continue to experience the love of Jesus in the people who surround them?
In 2 Timothy 3:14-17, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” II Timothy assumes that the people who have been raised in the church – our children – will continue in what they’ve been taught because they’ve been taught correctly.
Do we know the Bible? Are we exploring it in the best way possible? Are we sharing the Scripture with our biological children, our church family, our children in our neighborhoods and communities? Too often, I hear that we are watching everything around us fall apart because ‘young people today’ don’t know the right values. Are we maintaining them ourselves? Are we sharing them? Are we working toward the kingdom of God because we recognize, with childlike hope and joy, how wonderful it would be if everyone understood it and everyone was ‘in’ that kingdom?
In Acts 2:17-19, Peter quotes the prophet Joel, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”
If we can’t see the value in doing what we’re called to do simply because it’s right, Peter quotes Joel pointing out that the future of the kingdom of God really is our children. If we want the world to be a better place, if we want our children to be actively involved in what God is doing, we need to empower and mentor them.
We need to remind our children that God has promised to work in them, and with them, and through them to continue to redeem our world.
And as the children of God, that means that God still continues to work with us, even if we have forgotten how powerful that can be.
Today, I hope that you – children – recognize that God loves you, and calls you to be the best you can be, to recognize that God believes in your best. I hope you know that God forgives you when you sin and cries with you when you cry. I hope that you know that God will never ever give up on you, that God will never turn away from holding you.
Today, I hope that you – adults – recognize that God loves you, and calls you to be the best you can be. I hope that you recognize that God has given you these children – and those around you – to care for and nurture, to teach, to comfort, and to protect. I hope that you know that this is the great responsibility of our lives – to share the love of God we have experienced with others.
The kingdom of God is a wide open field, there for the exploring, the running, the tumbling, and the playing. It’s there for the joy of it.